Jenny disliked her job at the local bank. The work was monotonous, her boss was overbearing, and the pay left much to be desired. She wanted more out of life.
With a cloud of despairing weariness settling in over her head, and a heart that was souring with each passing day, she scheduled a meeting with her pastor. She hoped his counsel would shed light on the root of her discouragement and help restore some sense of joy to her life.
On the day of the meeting, she arrived ten minutes early and prayed quietly in her car. “Give me an open and receptive heart to my pastor’s words,” she whispered under her breath.
After the usual exchange of pleasantries and an opening prayer, Jenny unburdened her heart. She complained about her boss’s lack of respect for her; she lampooned the bank for never giving her a raise; and she sulked over their failure to express even the slightest gratitude for her nearly ten years of hard work.
Her pastor listened quietly and intently, stroking his beard and nodding his head.
“So, what do you think I should do?” Jenny asked.
Tilting his head slightly leftward, the pastor took a deep breath, leaned forward, and said, “You’re free to get a new job, Jenny, but don’t expect it to make you any happier.”
“Why do you say that?” Jenny probed, as she repositioned herself in her chair.
The pastor sipped his coffee, leaned back in his seat, and calmly replied, “Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul. But since most people fail to explore the complexities of their own souls, they often work out their spiritual anxieties by attempting to rearrange something external, like leaving their job, getting a new spouse, or changing churches. My recommendation to you, Jenny, is to spend some time praying and reflecting on what’s really going on in your heart. What is this really about? What is the source of your disappointment?”
“I think I may already know, pastor.”
Jenny leaned forward to grab a tissue from the small mahogany table that separated her from the pastor. After wiping tears from her eyes, she sighed heavily, and said, “This just isn’t what I expected for my life. This isn’t what I envisioned for my future. I didn’t expect to be single at forty, with three children to raise all alone. Each morning on my drive to work I ask myself ‘How is this my life?’”
Imagined Life Versus Given Life
Wendell Berry wisely observed that there’s often a gap between our imagined life and our given life. The life we envision for ourselves—the one we imagine as teenagers and daydream about as grown adults or retirees—rarely matches the one we wake up to every day. And the chasm between the two results in disappointment, frustration, anger, and envy. To make matters worse, these negative emotions spillover into our relationships in a concrete way. They prevent us from being fully present to enjoy the life God has given us, and the people he’s placed in our lives to love and serve.
The distinct features of this chasm are unique to each one of us. No two life stories are the same. So, here’s a question I’ve been pondering for the last four months: How can we glorify and enjoy God when our given life fails to align with imagined life?
Consider what follows some incomplete thoughts from a fellow wayfarer stumbling his way to our Eternal Homeland.
First, get honest with God and yourself. Acknowledge the discrepancy between your imagined life and your actual life. Own how it makes you feel—angry, disappointed, or depressed. Next, ask God to help you trace your feelings back to the root cause. What are the underlying reasons for your feelings of anger, disappointment, or depression? Have you properly grieved the loss of your loved one or the end of that marriage or relationship? Is your anger a result of failing to acknowledge your personal limitations or losses? Is your disappointment due to a blocked goal? If so, why is accomplishing that goal so important to you? Might it be that your depression is a result of pride? Tend to the deeper issues of the soul.
Second, walk by faith. I believe we do this best by recalling the providence of God. Providence, you’ll remember, refers to God’s governance of the world. God sustains and upholds the world he made (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3): “God is not like an artificer that builds a house, and then leaves it, but like a pilot he steers the ship of the whole creation.” He “directs all things and brings them to their ends.” This provides “unspeakable consolation” (Belgic Confession, art. 13) to us because it means that whatever comes into our lives happens “not by chance but by counsel.” Neither the world nor our lives is ruled by an impersonal force or an impotent deity. Rather, the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—superintends all things for the good of his people: “The God of providence is the Father who loves us, the Son who died and rose again in union with us, and the Spirit who indwells us and shepherds us home.”
These consoling truths compel us to walk by faith, which looks like:
1) Obeying his commands. Don’t forsake the King’s ways while passing through a trial. Instead, let it propel you into a season of sustained prayer; let it move you to fall afresh into God’s arms. Cry and lament. But don’t walk away. As the Puritan Thomas Brooks (1608–1680) told his congregation during a time of national turmoil in England: “Do not turn your backs on Christ; the worst of Christ is better than the best of the world.”
2) Trust that God is at work in your life. Assume the posture of childlike dependence before God. Get alone with him, open your hands before him, and offer your life to him once again. Believe the promises of God. He will complete the work he began (Phil. 1:6); he will work all things for your good (Rom. 8:28). He has not removed his steadfast love from you (Ps. 66:20). You stand in his forgiveness (Rom. 5:2). Your suffering is producing endurance (Rom. 5:3): “Afflictions to the godly are medicinal.”
3) Involve others. Link arms with fellow travelers who, like you, are making their way to the Celestial City. We all need to process life with a “gospel posse” (as Scotty Smith calls it)—a faith-filled group of people who trudge through the wind and snow of life with us.
In a fallen world, our imagined lives and given lives may never perfectly align. That’s why we need to approach each new day the same way: We begin with God. We throw ourselves on his mercy, collapse on Christ, offer ourselves up to him, and trust that he is at work. As imperfect, limited, embodied creatures, we rarely see exactly what God is doing in our lives as we’re passing through a hard season. But as a wise man once told me: Life is like the Hebrew alphabet. You can only read it backwards.
 Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998), 178.
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; repr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), 120.
 Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Providence,” in The Peter Martyr Reader, eds. John Patrick Donnelly, Frank A. James III, and Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1999), 195.
 Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Revelation and God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 1077.
 Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (1663; repr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 26.